Stephen J. Wellum
The glory of the cross and all that our Lord Jesus Christ achieved for his people in his entire work cannot be reduced to one word or image. Instead, Scripture presents the cross as a beautiful gem stone that can be gazed at from a number of angles. For this reason, Scripture interprets the meaning and significance of Christ’s work in diverse ways. In fact, Scripture describes the cross in at least eight ways: an act of obedience, a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins, our redemption, an act of reconciliation that secures our peace, an act justice which results in our justification, a triumph over our enemies, and a moral example to follow. In all of these multifaceted, complimentary ways, Scripture reveals Christ’s redeeming power, grace, wisdom, and beauty. Thus, to grasp fully what our Lord was doing on the cross, and thus what he achieved for us, we must listen to all that Scripture teaches, and especially do so on the Bible’s own terms.
In previous posts, we have spent time investigating the ways that Scripture explains and expounds the meaning of Christ’s death for us. So far, we have seen how Christ’s cross was an act of obedience by our new covenant head that results in our justification (Rom. 5:12–21; Phil. 2:6–11). Unlike the first man, Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Last Adam, perfectly obeyed God’s holy and righteous demand. And, as our perfect covenant representative and penal substitute, he secured our eternal redemption (Heb. 5:1–10). We also discovered how our Lord, as our great High Priest, was both the offerer and offering, as he sovereignly choose to lay down his life as a propitiatory sacrifice (John 10:14–18), thus satisfying God’s holy demand against us which secured the forgiveness of our sins (Matt. 1:21; Rom. 3:24–26; 1 Cor. 15:1–3; Col. 1:13–14; Heb. 9–10; cf. Jer. 31:34). Furthermore, we reflected on Christ as our Redeemer, who stood in our place and purchased us by his blood, thus buying us back from our enslavement to sin, death, and Satan (Gal. 3:10–13; 4:1–5; Eph. 1:6–8; 1 Pet. 1:18–19). Lastly, we discovered how our Lord, by his cross, secured our reconciliation with God (Rom. 5:1–11; 2 Cor. 5:17–21), thus restoring us to a covenant relationship with him and with his people (Eph. 2:11-22). Indeed, by Christ’s death, we discovered that he not only reconciled us to God by paying for our sin and turning back God’s wrath against us, but he has also secured peace resulting in a reversal of sin’s effects on the entire creation, resulting in a new creation (Col. 1:18–22).
Additionally, we have discovered that underneath all these diverse ways Scripture presents Christ’s cross, at least two truths undergird the entire biblical presentation. First, that as fallen creatures in Adam, all humanity stands under God’s judgment and the penalty of death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Eph. 2:1–3). This is why we need a Redeemer and the forgiveness of our sins. Second, for us to stand righteous before God, forgiven of our sin, reconciled to our Creator and Lord, and no longer under his wrath, we need a Savior who will represent as our covenant head and bear our sin as our penal substitute (Rom. 5:12–21). Indeed, apart from these two truths, we cannot make sense of why Christ’s obedience secures our justification, or why he must act as our great High Priest and offer himself as our propitiatory sacrifice, or why he must lay down his life to purchase our redemption and secure our reconciliation before God. Ultimately, to make sense of why the divine Son had to become incarnate and die for us, and how Scripture presents the entirety of his cross work, these twin truths must be maintained.
This last point is reinforced by turning now to the sixth way Scripture interprets the meaning of Christ’s cross, namely as an act of justice that results in our justification. In many ways, this image of the cross captures the previous ones and in truth underlies them.
The Cross as an Act of Justice
At the heart of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Justification is a word/concept from the law court denoting, primarily, that action whereby a judge upholds the case of one party in dispute before him. Having heard the case, the judge reaches a verdict in favor of the person and thereby “justifies” him; this action has the force of “acquittal.” The judge’s declaration entails that the person is not penally liable and thus is entitled to the privileges of those who have kept the law. As a forensic concept, a person who is justified is “just,” not as a description of his moral character but as a statement of his status or position before the court.
In the case of God as the holy and righteous Judge of the universe, when he justifies us, he declares us to be righteous before him. But how is this possible? Given our sin, God’s verdict is that all humans stand guilty and condemned (John 3:36; Rom. 3:23; 6:23). How, then, does God declare us just before him? Certainly, given who God is as the holy one, he does not overlook our sin? God is not like human judges who adjudicate laws external to themselves. Instead, he, as the triune God, is the moral standard of the universe. In truth, God is the law that we have sinned against. As such, when God judges, he remains true to his own perfect, moral demands. So, how can God declare sinners just before him given our sin?
Furthermore, in Scripture, God’s declaration that we are just has two aspects. First, for God to declare sinners just (Rom. 4:5), there must be the full forgiveness of our sin (Jer. 31:34). This assumes that the full weight and penalty of our sin must be completely satisfied. If this is not the case, then it would mean that God declares people just whose debt is unpaid, which is unthinkable, given who God is. Second, for God to declare sinners just also requires that we have a perfect, righteous standing before God; something, sadly, none of us have (Rom. 3:23; 8:1). So how can we stand justified before God? From whom does our standing and righteousness come?
Of course, the glorious answer is that God declares us just in Christ (Rom. 8:1). But note: the only way we can make sense of this is in terms of penal substitution. As we have noted in previous posts, central to Christ’s work is substitution. Our Lord, as our new covenant head, is the incarnate Son—the last Adam—who by virtue of his obedient life, acts as our representative by perfectly fulfilling God’s righteous demands for us. By his perfect obedience to his Father, Jesus becomes the perfect covenant keeper for us. However, it’s not only in his life that he represents us; it’s also in his obedient death that as the divine Son, he stands in our place and fully satisfies God’s righteous demands against us.
Thus, as a result of Christ’s penal death for us, and by faith and union in him, the Father declares us just—imputing Christ’s righteousness to us and forgiving us of our sin (Rom. 3:24–26; 4:1–5; 5:1-2; Phil. 3:9). In Christ, sin and all of its consequences are defeated, which frees us from sin’s power and the tyranny of Satan, who once held the verdict of death and condemnation over us (2 Cor. 5:21; see Rom. 8:32; Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:13–15; Heb. 2:5–18; 9:28; 1 Pet. 3:18). As a result of his work, and in faith union with him, God declares us righteous, not as a description of our present moral character, but as a statement of our status/position before God, due to the representative and substitutionary work of our mediator, Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is why the cross is presented in Scripture as an act of justice which results in our justification, especially in Romans 3:21–26. Why did Jesus have to die for us? What is central to the achievement of Christ’s cross? Paul explains that the forgiveness of our sins requires a full payment for our sin. As he reminds us, under the OT covenants, God justified people without a full atonement. In the OT, God entered into relationship with people, and through the sacrificial system God granted forgiveness to those who believed God’s promises (Gen. 15:6). Yet, it was never God’s intention for the previous covenants ultimately to redeem us. In fact, built within the old covenant were God-given limitations—e.g., no adequate substitute, the repetitious nature of the system which revealed its inability to forgive sin, and no provision for high-handed sins (see Heb. 9:1–10). Yet, in a number of ways, the previous covenants pointed forward to the dawning of a new covenant, a greater priest, and a better sacrifice. In this way, the OT revealed that God’s righteousness was to come “apart from the law” (Rom. 3:21), yet the same law-covenant also anticipated what has now come in Christ. But given that the OT covenants did not fully pay for sins, how could God declare OT believers justified if sin remain unpunished (Gen. 15:6; Ps. 32:1-2). The only answer is found in Christ and his cross that fully pays for the sins of God’s people, and thus demonstrates that God is just and the justifier of those who have faith in Christ.
In this way, Christ’s cross, at its centre, is an act of justice which results in our justification. God cannot leave sin unpunished, nor can he postpone its payment. Instead, there must come a time in which God acts to put away sin for good, and in Christ, provide a just ground for our justification. Thus, in Christ, those who have faith in him have a perfect righteousness not their own and the full payment of their sin. Our justification is not God overlooking our sin or relaxing his retributive demands against us, but solely due to Christ’s work on our behalf. For in union with his people, Christ, our new covenant head, has obeyed in our place, died our death, and satisfied divine justice which is evidenced by his victorious resurrection from the dead. As a result, by faith alone and in Christ alone, his righteousness is ours, now and forevermore (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). The only view that can make sense of this is penal substitution.
In many ways, thinking of the cross as an act of justice gets us to the central reason why Christ’s cross was necessary. In explaining that it is only by Christ’s representative and penal substitutionary work that we can be justified, we discover the inner rationale for the cross, and the glory of Christ’s redemptive work for us. We see more clearly why apart from Christ, there is no salvation, redemption, reconciliation, and justification. It’s no wonder, then, that Scripture exhorts us to glory in the cross and to trust in Christ alone.
Indeed, apart from Christ, in terms of who he is as the divine Son incarnate and what he does in his covenantal work for us, we have no justification before God. But, wonder of wonders, in Jesus all our needs are perfectly met. What a glorious Savior is Christ Jesus our Lord!